Itta (Irene) Steinberg of Roseland is fluent in Yiddish, but wanted to brush up on her reading skills.
Moishe (Martin) Steinman of Livingston always wanted to get back to the language that his parents spoke when he “wasn’t supposed to understand.”
Shava (Sheba) Mittelman of West Orange never learned Yiddish and always thought it was “terribly old-fashioned” until she got a little older and wiser and “realized that wasn’t so.”
All three are part of Rivkele (Rebecca) Levine’s intermediate Yiddish class. Every Tuesday, from 12:30 to 1:30 p.m. for the last five years or so, about half a dozen students, nearly all 50 or over, have met in a JCC MetroWest-sponsored class at the Partnership for Jewish Learning and Life on the Aidekman Jewish Community Campus in Whippany to brush up on the mameloshn.
The other regulars are Yocheved (Geri) Schaeffer of Livingston, Hershele (Errol) Berman of Livingston, Sholem (Sidney) Jacobson of Chester, and Sore Libbe (Shari) Slimowitz of Livingston.
A lifelong Yiddishist, Levine spoke the language with her grandmother growing up and was educated at a folkshul and mitlshul (high school) in Brooklyn. She said she loves the rich cultural context of Yiddish that sometimes just doesn’t translate to the way Jews live today. She remembered reaching out to Itche Goldberg, author and professor of Yiddish studies at Queens College. “He would respond to me, ‘Rivke, mayn kryn, mayn oytser.’”
It’s a “flowery, flattering phrase,” she said, that translates, “Rivke, my crown, my treasure.” She acknowledged that she once called him for someone’s phone number when she could have called information instead. “Information doesn’t call me, ‘Rivke, mayn kryn, mayn oytser,’” she said.
Now retired, Levine had a long career that included teaching Yiddish at and serving as principal of the local Jewish Cultural School and Society — or, as it was then known, the Suburban Jewish School — for nearly two decades.
It was founded in 1958.
She discovered the school in 1964, when she was looking for a Jewish education for her children that meshed with her Jewish sensibility.
Upon arriving for the first time, she recalled, “I walked in the door and heard a familiar booming voice call out ‘Rivkele!’ I was 32, and hadn’t seen haver [comrade Ben] Field, the principal of my folkshul, since I was 16. But I was still Rivkele. I knew a woman in her 80s who called herself Faygele. That’s the endearing way of Yiddish. The diminutive is how we are addressed even if you’re 80.”
Levine never stopped teaching Yiddish; when she retired from the SJCC in 1984, she continued teaching adult education at synagogues around the area and through what was then the Jewish Education Association of MetroWest, a forerunner of the Partnership.
Today she still offers beginner, intermediate, and advanced Yiddish, all at the Whippany campus. (The beginners’ class attracts a wider range of ages, including people in their 20s.)
“I do it because I love it. I go home on a high,” she said.
But she dearly misses the Yiddish Vinkl (corner) she ran for over 25 years, founded by Mel and Sherry Gold, formerly of West Orange, now residents of Teaneck. A self-supporting Yiddish cultural society that met mostly at the Cooperman JCC in West Orange but occasionally at the Whippany campus, it petered out in the last few years. The group’s first meeting featured Aaron Lansky, founder and president of the National Yiddish Book Center in Amherst, Mass. Other guests included the late Norman Salsitz, a Holocaust survivor from Springfield, and singers Eleanor Reissa, Peter Schlosser, and Susan Goldberg.
On a recent Tuesday, Levine and her students read a 1931 cookbook written in Yiddish, along with a few short stories, before reviewing new vocabulary.
After the class, Levine, who lives in Rockaway, expressed her amazement.
“It’s an old cookbook, and a vegetarian one — so the recipe for Hungarian Goulash included everything but meat. Look,” she said, pointing to a page in the volume, “it also tells you what to do for colds and other ailments. It’s incredible!”
She looked wistfully at the book’s inscription, from a brother to his sister. She guesses that the sister’s grandchildren probably had no idea what was even in the book when they got rid of it.
Levine oozes passion for the language, something that she obviously passes on to her students. They were so engrossed in Dos Kluge Shnayderl (The Clever Little Tailor) that they refused to break over the summer and plowed through the children’s book, just cutting down their meetings from weekly to once every three weeks. When they neared the end, Levine had them each craft their own conclusion to the story. Each student turned in a finale, written in Yiddish. One also turned in a map of some of the towns mentioned in the book.
On this particular Tuesday, class members giggled as they read through a few short pieces, while a visitor tried desperately to recall even a phrase or two from a long-forgotten Yiddish class she’d taken decades earlier.
Only days later did a single phrase rise to consciousness: A dank — Thank you.